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New York City Ballet

'Serenade', 'Mozartiana', 'Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2'

by Jerry Hochman

January 15-16, 2013 -- Koch Theatre, Lincoln Center, New York, NY

Last February, in the context of reviewing three New York City Ballet performances, each of which included presentations of Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, I opined that the collaboration of sorts between Balanchine and Tchaikovsky, even though not concurrent in time, was every bit as memorable as the more celebrated collaboration between Balanchine and Stravinsky, and that the Balanchine/Tchaikovsky ‘collaboration’ can be seen as an even more stunning accomplishment. At the time, I had no idea that NYCB would devote its Fall 2012 season to a celebration of Balanchine/Stravinsky, succeeded in its Winter 2013 season by a celebration of Balanchine/Tchaikovsky.

The ‘Tchaikovsky Celebration,’ which commenced Tuesday evening (and which includes, in addition to ballets created by Balanchine, two pieces to Tchaikovsky by Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins), consists of three repertory programs spread over the first two weeks of the 2013 Winter season, and thirteen performances of The Sleeping Beauty at the end of the season. [Two weeks of additional repertory performances that include works choreographed to Tchaikovsky, but not exclusively, are sandwiched in between.]

How Balanchine ‘collaborated’ with Tchaikovsky to make his ballets true to Tchaikovsky’s music, but with a contemporary attitude that frees the music, visually, from Petipa-induced preconceptions, is particularly evident to this viewer in Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, the concluding piece on Tuesday night’s program, which was repeated Wednesday night with different principals. Reportedly intended as a tribute to the Petipa style (as well as to Tchaikovsky, Petipa’s greatest composer) and to the imperial grandeur of St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 can be seen as much as a repudiation as an homage. [The ballet was originally titled Ballet Imperial before Balanchine stripped it of its imperial Russian visual connections in 1973 and changed its name to match the title of the Tchaikovsky composition.]

To this viewer, in Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 Balanchine is not so much paying tribute to Petipa as he is showing that his (Balanchine’s) style is not only different, but an improvement. How else to interpret the ‘Swan Lake’ allusion, where the lead male dancer, acting like Siegfried, moves from one corps line to the other, looking for his partner much as Siegfried searches for Odette, with the corps dancers signaling that he/Siegfried cannot go there. It’s as if Balanchine is saying that Petipa’s choreography was glorious then, but now is now, and the viewer must move on to Balanchine’s contemporary style – which ignites the stage like a lightning bolt following that ‘Swan Lake’ reference point.

But regardless of Balanchine’s intent, jettisoning what may be seen as Petipa’s limitations allows the Tchaikovsky music to breathe fresh air. And that, to me, is the genius of the piece. No more stylized romanticism, no obvious and isolated pyrotechnics, no dead spots. But the grandeur inherent in the Tchaikovsky score remains – in the rapid-fire, non-stop movement, and the characteristic Balanchine choreographic trademarks (intricate patterning, instant transitions and unforgiving timing requirements, a male dancer leading a chain of women, lines of dancers passing through other lines of dancers, pyrotechnical displays seamlessly woven through the fabric of the piece). It is a stunning, revolutionary transformation.

Each set of leads in the two performances I saw – Ashley Bouder, Savannah Lowery, and Jonathan Stafford on Tuesday, and Teresa Reichlen, Ana Sophia Scheller, and Tyler Angle on Wednesday – provided superlative performances. Ms. Bouder was particularly crisp and vibrant after quickly recovering from an early fall. However, overall this viewer preferred Wednesday’s cast. Ms. Scheller’s work appeared cleaner and Mr. Angle more sure-footed, but Ms. Reichlen’s performance was particularly noteworthy. While not as fast or as clear as Ms. Bouder (few are), Ms. Reichlen added a degree of warmth and … romanticism… to the role without sacrificing technique. Amanda Hankes, Ashley Laracey, Sean Suozzi, and Christian Tworzyanski on Tuesday, and Lauren King, Brittany Pollack, Allen Peiffer, and Mr. Tworzyanski on Wednesday, in the ‘supporting’ roles, all acquitted themselves well, and the corps, which was the same at both performances, was magnificent.

But then, perhaps I preferred Wednesday’s cast because the Wednesday performances in each piece on the program appeared superior to Tuesday, which was not only opening night for the Tchaikovsky Celebration, but the first post-Nutcracker performance of NYCB’s second winter season following a two week hiatus.

For a company that lives in large part on its heritage of landmark ballets, it’s difficult to denominate one classic as more representative of the company than another. But if NYCB has one signature ballet, it is Serenade. The first original ballet that Balanchine choreographed in America, it was, appropriately, the first piece performed in this Tchaikovsky Celebration.

Though plotless, Serenade carries the emotional punch of a story that one can see is there and that one can viscerally feel, but which cannot be translated into mere words. From the opening striking tableau of ballerinas with right arms uplifted as if both saluting the past and heralding the future (a visual motif that Balanchine repeats several times), through to the closing ‘apotheosis’ as the lead ballerina is carried away as if she were an emerging angel, the piece is a miracle of cohesive and coherent choreography and stagecraft despite its fortuitous genesis as an outgrowth of a ballet class and unanticipated rehearsal events. The various choreographic ingredients, whether borrowed from earlier works (nods to ‘Orpheus’ and ‘Apollo’) or nascent Balanchine choreographic trademarks, are fresh and new, still. And the piece is so visually dominating that once seen, one cannot hear the Tchaikovsky composition ("Serenade for Strings in C") without seeing the ballet, and the images that Balanchine created endure long after the music ends.

I must confess that I did not expect to like Sara Mearns in the role of Serenade’s ‘lead’ ballerina. As wonderful a dancer as she is, I see that particular role as requiring sylph-like vulnerability rather than stage dominance or over-the-top emotionalism, both of which qualities Ms. Mearns injects into many of her portrayals. But although, in my mind’s eye, I still see this role performed by a dancer less physically imposing, Ms. Mearns’s debut in the role on Wednesday was an unqualified success. A truly remarkable stage presence, Ms. Mearns did not become the wounded soul of the piece as much as she transformed herself into appearing sympathetic and vulnerable, but with an added sense of sorrowful nobility that, to me, changed the emotional focus of the role such that it appeared as if it had been choreographed on her. Her extraordinary portrayal was complemented with strong performances by Ashley Bouder, Jared Angle, and Adrian Danchig-Waring, and most significantly by Megan LeCrone, who to this viewer was nothing short of fabulous as the ‘angel of death’ ballerina.

Tuesday’s performance was not up to that standard. While I consider Janie Taylor to be the epitome of the vulnerable ‘lead’ ballerina, when partnered by Sebastien Marcovici, in his debut, she seemed to this viewer to be more careful, and more solicitous (as did he). As a result, the performance appeared a little off. The accompanying cast (Megan Fairchild, Rebecca Krohn, and Ask la Cour) were wonderful, however, with Ms. Fairchild delivering a particularly exceptional performance.

The final piece on the program, Mozartiana, was also the final work that Balanchine choreographed to Tchaikovsky. [Balanchine initially choreographed a piece to Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 4 (‘Mozartiana’) early in his career – reportedly, in 1933. Created in 1981, Mozartiana represents a completely new ballet to the same music.]

Mozartiana opens with a ‘Preghiera’ (Prayer) movement, which, despite the presence of four engaging and accomplished young student dancers to accompany the lead ballerina, sets the elegiac pace for the piece. The next movement, an ebullient ’Gigue’ danced by one male dancer, seems, in the context of the piece as a whole, to be somewhat of an aberration. The segue from the Gigue into the next movement, ‘Menuet,’ is seamless, as four corps dancers (members of the company, not students) join the male dancer on stage; he then exits, leaving the four women alone for the minuet. These four dancers are then succeeded by the ballerina and lead male dancer who alternatingly perform a lengthy series of short choreographic variations to match the theme and variations in the music. All the dancers then gather in the ‘Finale’.

While without doubt a choreographic masterwork, Mozartiana has previously appeared to me to be flat and somewhat depressing (to this viewer it is similar in mood to Robert Schumann’s ‘Davidsbundlertanze’, which Balanchine created the previous year, and which I recall being interpreted following its premiere as indicative of Balanchine’s preoccupation with and anticipation of his own death). Indeed, in prior viewings Mozartiana seemed less an homage to Tchaikovsky and via Tchaikovsky to Mozart, then a requiem, with an air of resignation and melancholy; a piece that could be appreciated for its technical fluency, but not much more. The black costumes (not ‘solid’ black, as in Balanchine’s ‘black and white’ ballets, but a lacey, almost funereal black) reinforced the mood.

Tuesday’s performance did not change my opinion. While Maria Kowroski was impeccable, as she always is, she appeared to this viewer to be perfect in a detached, mechanical way, without ‘drawing me in’ to the piece at all (which, as I recall, was my reaction to the original cast). And the central ‘Theme and Variations’ pas de deux, brilliantly executed as it was, seemed to go on forever, and to grow increasingly tedious to watch.

That evaluation changed at Wednesday’s performance. Ms. Kowroski’s presentation may have been what Balanchine envisioned (since to my recollection it closely resembled that of the original cast), but stoic delivery leaves this audience member cold. Sterling Hyltin’s performance in the same role on Wednesday brought the piece to life.

I’ve previously observed that Ms. Hyltin dances larger than life. To me, this remains a hallmark of her performances. And perhaps that ability to project rather than just to ‘be’ carried Ms. Hyltin’s performance in Mozartiana to another level. Without, to my eye, sacrificing any of technical execution that Ms. Kowroski had performed so brilliantly the night before, Ms. Hyltin illuminated the role by not appearing chained to the choreography. She danced the same steps, but without the heaviness I’d previously seen, changing her facial expression, even smiling at times (not so much showing emotion – heaven forbid – but by revealing the humanity in her stage persona), and in so doing, for this viewer, illuminating Tchaikovsky’s homage to Mozart and Balanchine’s homage to both of them. Instead of being an ascetic visual experience, it was joyful one, and I found myself not just watching great dancing, but being transported; and for the first time I looked forward to each ‘theme and variation’ as if each were one in an abundant series of buried treasures waiting to be discovered. Ms. Hyltin’s performance was a revelation, and has forever changed my opinion of the piece – and her performance was all the more remarkable because it was her debut in the role.

Ms. Kowroski and Ms. Hyltin were ably complemented by, respectively, Tyler Angle and Chase Finlay (in his role debut), and the ‘Gigue’ was performed with vigor by both Daniel Ulbricht (on Tuesday) and Anthony Huxley (on Wednesday), with Mr. Huxley’s jig a light and refreshing Beaujolais in contrast to Mr. Ulbricht’s more complex and robust Cabernet. The four company dancers supporting the leads were the same at both performances (Marika Anderson, Amanda Hankes, Gwyneth Muller, and Gretchen Smith), as were the four remarkable student dancers (Fiona Brennan, Claire Layton Fishman, Isabelle Fonte, and Anna Greenberg), and all performed admirably.

According to supplemental program notes prepared by NYCB, Balanchine told an interviewer that ‘In everything that I did to Tchaikovsky’s music, I sensed his help. It wasn’t real conversation. But when I was working and saw that something was coming of it, I felt that it was Tchaikovsky who had helped me.’ This connection, this ‘special affinity’ as the NYCB notes put it, shows in the Balanchine/Tchaikovsky collaborations, and this special relationship – evidenced by this first program of the Tchaikovsky Celebration, produced ballets that warm the heart as they stimulate the mind.

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